Prisoner amnesties decreed by the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, during the country’s 10-year war have freed less than 6% of detainees, with an estimated 136,000 people remaining in state prisons, a report has revealed.
The amnesties, which were hailed as acts of benevolence by officials and Assad, have put barely a dent in the huge numbers still held in the regime’s infamous prison systems, some for years after their sentences had expired.
According to the report, by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), many of the detainees were arrested without legal justification, often for taking part in anti government protests in the early months and years of the uprising against Assad’s regime.
The report, which has taken almost a year to prepare, suggests 7,531 people subject to arbitrary arrest have been released, while 136,000 remain forcibly detained, many without access to family or lawyers.
The releases have taken place over 21 amnesties, personally approved by Assad and billed as a means of reconciliation between the opposition and the regime, which took a hardline stance against protests inspired by the regional uprisings that came to be known as the Arab spring.
But rather than being acts of good faith, the amnesties were instead seen as small mercies doled out against the backdrop of one of the biggest and cruellest detention systems in the world.
“Since the very first moment of his or her arrest, the detainee is subjected to torture, and denied any chance of contacting their family or lawyer,” the report, titled Breaking Down the Amnesty Decrees, says.
“In the overwhelming majority of cases, Syrian authorities deny having arrested the detainee, who goes on to be classified as a forcibly disappeared person.
“Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fallen victim to the Syrian regime’s arrest machine, with their cases devoid of any clear charges or evidence. They have been arrested for political reasons, grounded in the Syrian regime’s battle to survive without making any meaningful political changes. (These) are unlawful arbitrary arrests that violate international human rights law, as well as the Syrian constitution and domestic laws.”
Fadel Abdul Ghany, the director of SNHR, said the small numbers of people released were overshadowed 20-fold by “those left behind”.
“At this rate they would need 233 years and 408 decrees to release the rest,” he said. “This is an important milestone in understanding the Syrian war and its effect on the population. This was not Assad’s kindness. The amnesties were a further instrument of repression.”
Bashir al-Abdul, a former detainee at the infamous Saydnaya prison in Damascus, said he was handed a 21-year sentence in 2011 in a hearing that lasted about 30 seconds. He, like many others detained, was forced to pay a large bribe to jailers despite being named on an amnesty list.
“In 2019, I had spent 8.5 years in prison. By then, I was offered to be included in an amnesty by one of the officers there for a sum of money in return. It was a large amount of money but we managed here and there to raise it. I paid him via instalments to guarantee my release. He included me in the 2014 amnesty (which was not honoured) and the 2019 one.
“I am a witness to how many men were promised amnesties and were eligible for them but were never granted and a witness to how many names were included but amnesties were later distributed to other prisons.
“We knew the regime was a liar. Ninety per cent of those mentioned in amnesties were those who used to work with the regime and committed horrific war crimes. But they weren’t imprisoned properly, and once they were released (after token sentences) they would be reinstated back into their militias.”